The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles rates all drivers to whom it has issued a driver’s license using a point system. Motorists start with a score, or point balance, of zero. Each year, they can earn one “safe driving point” by maintaining a clean record. On the other hand, drivers lose points when convicted of a traffic violation (i.e., “demerit points”).

The number of demerit points for a traffic violation ranges from 3 demerits for making an improper U-turn, 4 demerits for running a red light, to 6 demerits for DUI, reckless driving or driving 20 miles per hour or more over the posted speed limit. Knowing the number of demerit points on one’s record is important, since accumulating too many points over a certain period will cause the DMV to take action to include putting the driver’s license on probation or suspension. A driver can easily download a copy of his or her driving history online for a small fee.

How do drivers earn safe points?

Motorists earn one point for each full calendar year without any traffic violations or suspensions. Drivers may also earn five points by voluntarily completing the DMV’s Driver Improvement Program. The maximum is five safe driving points (i.e., “+5”).

How long do demerit points stay on one’s record? What about the record of the conviction itself?

Demerit points stay on a driver’s record for two years from the offense date that the traffic violation occurred. However, the conviction itself may stay on a driver’s record for three to 11 years, depending on the severity of the offense.

What happens when a driver has too many demerit points?

A driver’s point balance matters for two reasons:

First, if an adult driver accumulates 12 demerits in a period of 12 months or 18 demerits in 24 months, the DMV will require him or her to complete a driver safety program within 90 days. Accumulating 18 demerits in 12 months or 24 points in 24 months will cause the DMV to suspend one’s license for 90 days followed by a six-month probation period.

Second, it may affect whether a traffic court prosecutor or judge will give the driver a break on his or her ticket. Generally, a prosecutor or judge is far more likely to exercise his or her discretion in favor of a good driver (i.e., 0 to +5 point balance). For example, a criminal Reckless Driving by speed charge could be reduced down to a non-criminal speeding ticket (sparing the driver a permanent criminal record, jail time, a large fine, a license suspension, and reducing the DMV demerits considerably).

Do VA DMV demerit points affect my auto insurance rate?

Technically, no. Each insurance company has its own system assigning demerit points to traffic offenses. The more insurance demerit points a driver gets, the higher his or her auto insurance premium will be raised when the current policy period ends.

Sometimes, the insurer’s demerit point system matches up with the VA DMV system. Other times, the insurer’s system may be bizarrely different. For example, some insurers assign 2 demerit points to a conviction for defective equipment, while the VA DMV assigns no demerit points at all. And while the VA DMV considers a DUI to be a 6-demerit point violation, some insurers only assign 1 or 2 points (treating it no more harshly than a relatively low speed speeding ticket).

After getting a traffic ticket, a driver should always review his or her insurance policy to understand how the charge could affect his or her auto premium in the future. A good traffic attorney should advise you that any potential “break” on a traffic ticket may result in an auto insurance premium hike.